Headline: "Bruce Clark Signs with Canadian Football League." Question: Why ?
Headline: "Terry Metcalf Heading for Cfl. "Question: Why ?
Headline: Tom Cousineau opts for Canada." "Question: Why ?
Answer: Money .
No one in Canada will try to tell you that the nine-team Canadian Football League is a match in talent, power or dollars for the megabucks National Football League. But the league is being heard from. The St. Louis Cardinals lost Metcalf three years ago. Last year, Ohio State linebacker Cousineau, the NFL's top draft pick with Buffalo, chose Montreal instead. This year, Penn State's Bruce Clark, the Green Bay Packer top pick, also went north, to Toronto.
CFL people are blunt about their raids. Jack Gotta, Calgary Stampeder general manager: "The CFL clubs have money. They're willing to spend. The players are willing to come it the money's right. They sell tickets. Why shouldn't they come?"
Because, says Mary Levy, former caoch in Montreal now with the Kansas City Chiefs, it's a risk. "I wouldn't advise a top American player to go to Canada," Levy said. "He's taking a risk. Eventually he's going to want to come back to the NFL.He's taking a chance on getting hurt and diminishing his own value."
Still, the players are going north. But, they are not finding the CFL to be a nursery school. Cousineau has struggled; Metcalf has not been a dominant player.
"The Americans who make it big here aren't the big-name guys," said Terry Evanshen, a Canadian and a star in the league for 14 years. "They're not that hungry. They're getting their bucks anyway. It's the unknown American who are stars in this league."
The CFL isn't the NFL. But if you aren't ready for the pros you don't stick around long. The 34-man rosters can be changed any time during the season. Americans are referred to in the CFL jargon as "imports." If an import doesn't perform he becomes an export.
Welcome to the Canadian Football League.
It was the second quarter. The Calgary Stampeders, the home team, were leading 10-0, and had things under control. The near sellout crowd was restless.
The visitors received a punt and ran a play. Now, the chant began. It started slowly, but gradually spread through the stadium.
"We want beer.
"We want beer.
"We want beer."
This is the province of Alberta, where beer cannot be sold in football stadiums. That doesn't prevent fans from drinking in the stadium. Frequently though, it does provide a distraction. Canadian football fans are spoiled. Unlike American fans who willingly accept a 3-0 first half, they begin to stir midway through the first quarter if someone hasn't started scoring points.
This is not the National Football Leauge, It is the Canadian Football League. In the NFL the stars are running backs and defensive coordinators. Here, the stars are quarterbacks and kickers.
"The game is so wide open that sometimes the American fan has trouble following it at first," said Evanshen, now a color commentator on CBC. "Its potential is unlimited. All we have to do is market it the right way. We're certainly not there yet."
THE CFL is no flop. Its version of the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup, is the biggest single sports event in Canada and produces a week of parades, celebrations and parties. Most of the teams play to more than 80 percent capacity. The franchises are stable: the nine teams in the league have remained in their current homes 26 years without shift.
But there are problems, not the least of which is what Canadians refer to as "The American Complex." All nine head coaches in the league are American. All nine starting quarterbacks, and eight of the backups, are American. Most of the stars in the league are American.
"I guess if you didn't have the import rule, you might have 50 Canadians (out of 306 players) playing in this league," said Gotta. "Most of the Canadian kids don't have the skills or the training of the Americans."
There is only one college in Canada that gives football scholarships. Canadian boys are given hockey sticks, not football helmets.
Tom Forzani grew up in Calgary but played college football in Utah State, following two older brothers there. His senior season, 1973, he had the nation in pass receiving and played in the Senior Bowl. He went untouched in the NFL draft.
"I was ticked off," Forzani said. "They said I was too small, too slow, all that stuff. I didn't think so. After I came here to play and did well I got approached a couple of times. I never considered it. They had their chance. I'm happy living here."
But Forzani is the exception to the rule. Although CFL players make a good living under terms of their new union contract -- the average is about $32,000 -- they don't make the money an NFL player can make. And, because so many of the league's stars are American most dream of eventually playing in the NFL.
"Since third grade I've wanted to play in the NFL," said James Sykes. "I still want the chance. It isn't that I'm unhappy here, because I'm not. But if the chance came to go back under the right cirucumstances, I'd be there."
Sykes was a late cut from the 1977 Washington Redskins. He sat out that season, then came north to Calgary. He led the CFL in rushing in 1978, was hurt for part of 1979 -- still gaining 702 yards -- and is averaging more than 100 yards a game the first eight weeks of the season. Suddenly, NFL teams are noticing him.
It should be understood that the Canadian version of football is quite different from the American version. There are several crucial rules differences, the most significant being that in the CFL there are only three downs, as opposed to four in the NFL.
The field is 110 yards by 65 yards, as opposed to 100 by 53. The end zones are 25 yards deep, not 10. That makes for a more wide open game because there is so much more room to maneuver.
There are 12 men on a side in the CFL, not 11. "The first time I walked into a huddle," said Bruce Clark, the Penn State all-American who opted to pass up the Green Bay Packers for Toronto this year," I said. 'Hey, where'd all these guys come from?' You notice the difference."
CFL backs and receivers can start in motion anytime and go in any direction.
The kicking game is a much more important part of the CFL game than the NFL game. Part of that is because there are three downs and, as a result, more punts. But that is only part of it.
In Canada, there is no such thing as a simple touchback. If a kick returner downs the ball in the end zone following a kickoff, punt, or field goal attempt the other team scores a point.
There is no such thing as a fair catch of a punt. You either run with the ball or kick it right back. The latter situation crops up often in the fourth quarter of a close game. The trailing team will kick the ball into the end zone. Not being able to afford giving up a point, the other team will field the ball and kick it right back. At times the ball will go back and forth three or four times on a single play.
Many Americans are confused the first time they see a Canadian game. "The first couple of games up there I had to turn to my players on occasion and ask them what to do," said Levy. "It seems difficult at first until you get accustomed to it. Then the basics are the same."
At 71, Lew Hayman is the senior man in the league. Hayman has been connected with the CFL since 1933 and is president of the Toronto Argonauts. In that role he has signed players such as Metcalf and Clark, a practice many, including Evanshen, frown on.
"I think if you sign the right kind of guy, the kind of guy who is going to come up here and work hard, not think it's a joke, it can work well," Hayman said. "We're averaging more than 45,000 fans a game this year and I think players like Clark and Metcalf sell tickets."
"The product sells tickets," Forzani said, "A lot of these big money guys come up here and think they're on vacation. That's not good for the league."
The CFL players have been unionized 10 years and the union has helped make the league more attractive to the middle level player who might not make it in the NFL.
Still, for the American player, the lure of the NFL is usually -- in the end -- irresistible. Joe Theismann went back. Tom Clements went back. Eric Harris, also with Kansas City, went back. Clark and Metcalf will probably go back. Holt wants to go back.
"Canadian kids grow up wth the dream of playing in the NHL," Levy said. "American kids, the ones who play football anyway, grow up dreaming about playing in the NFL. Eventually, almost all of them who think they can make it, want a shot at it. They don't see anything wrong with spending a couple of years in Canada, but for most of them, it's just a stopping point."
But each year, more and more good players make it a stopping point. After 26 years without a franchise shift, expansion is being discussed. Attendance is up in most cities, even in places such as Regina, Saskatchewan, which has not been in the playoffs since the '60s.
There are many who think the strange division in league ownership -- the four Eastern teams are privately owned, the five Western teams are community owned -- is a potential problem, but at the moment all the teams seem to be competing on fairly even footing. The dominant team in the league the last two seasons has been Edmonton, a community-owned club that has won two straight Grey Cups and built a new stadium which it sells out -- 45,000 seats -- every game. B.C. is expected to have a domed stadium in 1983; Calgary has just expanded its seating capacity.
"It's going well," said Evenshen. "But it could go so much better if we marketed the product better. We have to sell our product to the people."
To Evenshen that means more Canadians and fewer big-name Americans. But that doesn't appear to be the trend. The money is there; the Americans are willing. Americans have played in the CFL since 1935. They were the subject of controversy then when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, with seven Americans, won the Grey Cup.
Today, they are still a subject of controversy. One Canadian quarterback filed suit two years ago charging that an American-born coach discriminated against him because of nationality. He won the suit and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had to pay him $10,000 because he had not received a fair tryout.
Now, there are those who say, keep the American stars out; who complain there are too many American Quarterbacks. Other say, without them the league would lose its luster.
"It's not likely anything will get resolved very quickly," said Hayman, an American. "I've been here 47 years and nothing in this league changes quickly.
"This league is evolutionary, he said, "not revolutionary."